Once bound by trade, China-EU honeymoon sours over Ukraine war

China’s support for Russia has forced the bloc to reassess a bilateral relationship that has long been centred on economics.

EU China flags
China and Europe's relations are becoming increasingly chilly [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – China and Europe may not be in a cold war, but bilateral relations are increasingly chilly.

China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, considered an existential threat to European security, is the latest and gravest in a series of challenges by Beijing to the rules-based order on which the European Union professes to operate.

Reflecting a bilateral relationship centred on economics, Europe has often taken disagreements with its top trading partner China in stride.

However, China’s support for Russia – rooted in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin – has altered European calculations.

“The sense of urgency to protect Europe from authoritarian threats wasn’t as strong before as it is now. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a game-changer,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University and a former political adviser in the European Parliament, told Al Jazeera.

Brussels initially hoped Beijing would use its influence with Moscow to broker peace.

European Commissioner-designate for a Stronger Europe in the World Josep Borrell Fontelles of Spain attends his hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels
EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressed hope that Beijing might use its close ties with Moscow to broker peace in Ukraine [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

“There is no alternative,” the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell told Spanish newspaper El Mundo in March. “It has to be China.”

Instead, China abstained in a UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and denounced a “cold war mentality based on bloc confrontation,” a jab at NATO. In a virtual summit with EU leaders on April 1, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian blamed the United States for the conflict. Washington, Zhao said, is “the culprit and leading instigator of the Ukraine crisis”.

Such claims do not resonate in Europe, where the US plays a crucial security role.

“Beijing is so blinded by wanting Europe to be ‘strategically autonomous’ from the US that it prevents it from understanding the security infrastructure in Europe,” Sari Arho Havrén, a European-China policy analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, told Al Jazeera.

“Wolf warrior diplomacy has not won China any friends in Europe,” Sarah Kirchberger, head of Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy, told Al Jazeera, referring to the pugnacious approach to foreign affairs pursued under Xi.

Kirchberger noted that European views on China hardened during the early days of the pandemic when Beijing hoarded medical supplies even as it denied the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan, sent Europe defective Chinese-made testing kits and face masks, and refused to cooperate with an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

As Beijing doubles down on its “no limits” partnership with Moscow, “there is an awakening in Europe to the fact that some states are not goodwill actors and will not follow the rules,” Kirchberger said. “We must reduce our vulnerability to and dependency on China.”

‘A dialogue of the deaf’

Though Europe’s expectations were low for the recent EU-China Summit, Beijing’s performance still managed to underwhelm. China refused to commit to withholding military or economic support from Russia, a key European objective for the summit. Josep Borrell described the talks as “a dialogue of the deaf”.

“During the EU-China Summit, China was reluctant to even touch on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and wanted to talk about ‘positive’ things – while there is a war on European soil,” said Arho Havrén, the MERICS fellow.

“This is again a sign of not understanding the seriousness of the situation in Europe and wanting to stay out of it, despite being a permanent member of the UN Security Council.”

Beijing’s objectives for the summit were nebulous. Xi has been preoccupied with domestic affairs as he works to secure an unprecedented third term at the Chinese Communist Party National Congress in the latter half of the year.

Although the summit produced no joint statement, Chinese state media still spun it in a positive light.

“In a turbulent world facing the raging COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling global economic recovery, the fact that Chinese and EU leaders had in-depth and candid discussions on major issues concerning global peace and development itself injects positive energy to the world,” Deng Li, Chinese vice foreign minister, was quoted as saying by Xinhua News.

Asked about the current state of China-EU ties, a spokesperson at the Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the EU referred Al Jazeera to remarks made by Xi and Premier Li Keqiang during the April summit.

“President Xi elaborated on China’s vision to build a China-EU partnership for peace, growth, reform, and civilization and called on the EU to adopt an independent China policy,” the spokesperson said. “Against the current international situation, President Xi called the two sides to act as two major forces upholding world peace, two big markets promoting shared development, and two great civilizations promoting human progress. President Xi and Premier Li also detailed the areas in which China and the EU could cooperate. The Chinese leaders also expounded on China’s position on the Ukraine issue.”

That rosy view aside, Beijing appears to at least recognize its relationship with Europe is increasingly troubled. Last week, it sent a delegation of diplomats to central and eastern Europe led by Huo Yuzhen, China’s special representative to China-Central and Eastern Europe Cooperation.

“Beijing is now trying the exact same charm offensive in eastern Europe as during the EU-China Summit. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now – except perhaps in Hungary and Serbia,” the most pro-Beijing countries in the region, Arho Havrén said.

Lithuania's flag.
Lithuania’s deepening ties with Taiwan have strained its relations with Beijing [File: Peter Kollanyi/Bloomberg]

China’s diplomatic foothold in the region largely derives from the “17+1” platform, established in 2012 to build ties with central and eastern European countries. Critics have criticised the platform for failing to deliver expected economic benefits. Lithuania pulled out from “17+1” in early 2021 after branding the grouping “divisive”.

Vilnius later moved to deepen ties with Taiwan, the self-ruled democratic island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. Taiwan opened a representative office in the Lithuanian capital last year and Lithuania plans to do the same in Taipei.

China has reacted furiously with informal sanctions that have severed most of its trade with Lithuania. Data compiled by China’s General Administration of Customs cited by Bloomberg shows that imports from Lithuania – mainly refined copper, furniture and wheat – plunged 88.5 percent in dollar terms from 2021 in the first two months of the year.

So far, the dispute between China and Lithuania has had limited effect on European businesses operating in China, Jörg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told Al Jazeera.

“What it has done is further complicate EU-China relations, and alert other EU member states to the fact that China is willing to employ economic coercion in response to political issues,” Wuttke said, adding that the Chamber “hopes that both sides can find ways to deescalate tensions.”

Asked about the prospects for Brussels and Beijing to revive talks on a bilateral investment deal, known as the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), Wuttke noted that it did not appear on the official agenda of the April 1 summit.

‘Zero-sum competition of ideologies’

“We see little prospect of the CAI being ratified anytime soon,” he said. “The EU has explicitly stated it will not ratify the CAI while Chinese counter-sanctions remain in place on several members of European Parliament.”

Nevertheless, the frozen CAI has not dampened the interest of European firms in the Chinese market. Some had been planning to boost manufacturing investments in China before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recent domestic outbreaks of the hyper-contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The fallout from the war and disruptions to business caused by China’s strict citywide lockdowns have “given them pause” though, Wuttke said.

French bank Societe Generale described the Chinese economy as “in distress” in an April research note, highlighting the toll lockdowns are taking.

Gabor Holch, a Shanghai-based management consultant who has worked in China since 2005, said politics are exerting an ever-larger pull on the Chinese government’s decision-making. Despite the economic damage caused by its quest to eradicate the coronavirus, “the Chinese leadership still sticks to the zero-Covid policy as the right way forward,” Holch told Al Jazeera. Beijing sees “a kind of a zero-sum competition of ideologies” with the West, he said.

Holch said he expects “extremely agile” multinational firms to adapt to a more politicised business environment in China, but European firms would have to tread carefully when sharing sensitive technologies with Chinese firms that may cooperate closely with Russia, such as in the semiconductor and energy sectors.

A European semiconductor maker “would not want to see its chipmaking technology go through four steps of separation and end up in a Russian drone,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera